01/12/2006. Contributed by Frank Ochieng
Filmmaker Neil Burger's The Illusionist did get a hearty movie release head start by exploring the stylistic themes of a period piece saturated in mysticism and romanticism, says Frank. As a lavish mystery thriller, The Illusionist resonated with sparkling imagination. Still, this shouldn't disqualify writer-director Christopher Nolan's penetrating The Prestige, another solid and well-crafted costume melodrama that sinks its gritty teeth in the aura of magicians and their eye-popping tricks of the trade.
Creatively complicated and sweeping in its alluring exoticism, The Prestige is sophisticated and darkly cunning in its haunting spirit.
Nolan has cranked out some intriguing fare with intense character studies in challenging ditties such as 2000's Memento, 2002's Insomnia and 2005's Batman Returns. It's safe to say that Nolan embraces challenging narratives that provide substantive scope and The Prestige continues his quest for this treasured trend. Laced with a top-notch cast, durable writing (Nolan shares a screenwriting credit with sibling Jonathan-the brainchild behind Memento's conception) and a generous hint of sci-fi influence, The Prestige's greatest magic trick is its vibrant opulence as a viable illusion to behold. No doubt the Nolans will have audiences trying to make heads or tails out of this compelling film that effectively works as a playfully tantalizing puzzle.
The Prestige is the big screen adaptation of British author Christopher Priest's 1995 novel of the same name. Courageously, the Nolan brothers apply a different spin on Priest's skilful written work by inserting flourishes that add distinction to their cinematic vision. In many ways, this film wallows more into the in-depth nuances of magic than the aforementioned The Illusionist. The philosophy pertaining to the whimsical trappings of the magical feat is embedded in the belief that witnesses are encouraged to ponder the inquiry "Are you watching closely?" In other words, the art of magic is as deceptive as it is a dazzling display to realize.
The film's title refers to the pinnacle (or dissection) of a trick where there are three main stipulations to adhere to at hand. First the so-called "ordinary" demonstration by a magician seems rather innocuous to the crowd although more complex than it actually seems. The "ordinary" demonstration is then turned into an amazing endeavour (or so it seems in the inquisitive eyes of the spectators). The third aspect, named "the prestige", seals the deal by making the trick the invincible stunt that really mesmerizes the observers. Of course, this is where the on-lookers are absolutely hungry for the secret behind the magician's realm of mystery.
The riveting story centres around two rival magicians during the turn-of-the-century Victorian England where their heated competition turns into a deadly feud waiting to irrupt so vigorously. Robert Angier ("The X-Men's" Hugh Jackman) is a debonair but impulsive trickster. And Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, Nolan's "Batman Returns" leading man) is the less flashy but more cutting edge illusionist with a blue-collar sensibility. Together, these troubled artists are determined to outwit and outdo each other in the name of their jaw-dropping, theatrical profession. It's a volatile touch-and-go between two passionate men trying to protect their interests regardless of the ego-driven mentality that besiege them.
We realize the hostile degree of the magicians' nasty clashing, particularly when the film's beginning concentrates on the solitary confinement of Borden who's in jail due to his murdering of adversary Angier. While awaiting his execution Borden has time to reflect on his participation concerning the contentious relationship he held with the deceased Angier (for which Borden contends that his foe may be alive and kicking). So through a series of flashbacks (with Angier's secret journal used to reinforce the recollections of this turbulent tandem's disturbing history), the film delves into the perspectives of both conflicted men not to mention showcasing some resoundingly entertaining magic.
What's fascinating about the secret journal as a convenient device for us poking into the harried world of Angier and Borden is that we cannot determine the validity of its contents. Is Angier's memoirs embellished or does it capture the essence of what transpired in his dubious dealings with Borden? Which individual is being jeopardized in this instance? Who do we regard as trustworthy-the silenced voice of the late Angier or the imprisoned voice of the detained Borden? Who brings the authenticity of their vivid accounts to the table? Better yet, maybe we feel obligated to doubt either tortured soul's word?
One of the coveted and memorable plots in the film involves the pesky and persistent Angier wanting to master Borden's inventive "The Transported Man", a marvellously head-scratching trick that enables a magician to disappear on the spot only to materialize elsewhere in another venue. It's an incredible act that certainly gives the crafty Borden his unique cache. However, the pushy Angier fusses over wanting to learn the hush-hush ropes behind Borden's elaborate showmanship. Determined to expand upon Borden's showy routine, Angier packs up and travels to America where celebrated inventor Nicola Tesla (David Bowie) can aid him in his pursuit to uncover (or improve upon) "The Transported Man" gimmick.
There's something radically refreshing about The Prestige in the way it manipulates time, space and the atmospheric moodiness that defines that murky era in England's elegant but gothic mindset. Nolan accentuates this exposition with a driven spectacle that searches the tattered psyche for its lost personalities and the magical malaise that persists throughout the production. The performances are terrific as Jackman and Bale headline their characterizations with an impishness that both frustrates and inspires. This twosome are seriously flawed but nevertheless involving in what they bring to the forefront as duelling partners whose weaponry consists of their magical arsenal and an obstinate sense of pride to match.
The supporting players are engaged in the plot rather suitably. Oscar-winning veteran Michael Caine is on board as the seasoned magician technician (whose voiceover work gives the film its observational gusto). Surprisingly, singer-actor Bowie contributes effectively as the groundbreaking electrician whiz/innovator Nicola Tesla. Andy Serkis ("The Lord of the Ring's" Gollum) is enjoyably steady and interesting in his supporting part.
The only minor consideration in this bunch is the sumptuous Scarlett Johansson whose turn as the desirable stage assistant that gets caught in the three-way romantic crossfire of Angier's and Border's starved affections feels misplaced. Johansson is too talented and resourceful to be stuck in arbitrary roles as a background babe assigned to window-dressing duties (for quick frame of reference, witness her wasted participation in Woody Allen's slight and sluggish magician-themed English whodunit "Scoop").
All things considered, The Prestige is a thought-provoking exploration of wonderment that makes us want to do more than "pull a rabbit out of the hat". Visually spry and contemplative, what more can one say about a forceful film that asks us to unmask our hidden Houdini within? Hey, it's just plain magic...it's as simple as that!
© Frank Ochieng 2006